Humour was in Satyajit Ray’s DNA, quite literally so. His father Sukumar Ray was one of the greatest children’s writers in Bengali, and his nonsense verse continues to be staple reading for Bengalis, young or old. Having lost his father at the age of two, the adult Ray would go on to revive and edit, along with his aunt Leela Majumdar and cousin Nalini Das (both famous children’s writers in Bengali), the children’s magazine Sandesh, founded by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Ray’s grandfather. Upendrakishore was also the creator of the immortal fantasy Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which inspired Ray’s 1969 movie adaptation, a unique celluloid experience filled with wonder and fun. Ray himself was noted for his quiet, but quirky, sense of humour. His sci-fi series based on the character of the brilliant and eccentric scientist Prof. Shonku is dappled with in-jokes and asides that don’t render well in English.
Indeed, the untranslatable nuances of Bengali are perhaps responsible for shadowing Ray’s reputation as a stellar humourist. Those conversant with the language and culture get his references instantly. As soon as Lalmohan Ganguli, who writes best-selling thrillers for teenagers under the pseudonym Jatayu (played by the inimitable Santosh Dutta), appears in Sonar Kella—the first of the two movies featuring Feluda, the master sleuth, directed by Satyajit Ray—Bengalis know they have encountered a certain type of bhadralok. A genial smile pasted under his balding pate, Jatayu is forever curious about the world around him and raring to go on adventures, though his leonine spirit is easily shaken. Like Jatayu, the giant bird from the Ramayan who put its life at stake to save Sita from Ravan, Lalmohan-babu wants to stick out his neck at times of peril. But his derring-do proves to be more of a liability (as in a climactic scene inside a dark railway carriage) than of practical use.
In spite of his clumsiness, Lalmohan-babu, played by Dutta, endeared himself to generations of Bengalis. He is that bumbling busybody uncle we all adore but are also exasperated by. Ray’s singular gift as a humourist was to portray his characters without judgement or ridicule, and it comes through in one of the early movies. After making Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), Ray decided to try something new with Parash Pathar (1958). His first two feature films, critically acclaimed around the world, had not quite captured the ordinary movie-goers of Bengal. So Ray thought he would make a movie that connected readily with masses—one in which comedy and drama would keep the audience entertained till the very last scene. Parash Pathar was inspired by a short story by the legendary Bengali writer Rajshekhar Basu, who also borrowed his pseudonym, “Parashuram”, from an epic character. A translator of the Mahabharat into Bengali, a reputed chemist and lexicographer, Basu was loved for his humorous stories and essays.
In Parash Pathar, a middle-class Bengali clerk, Paresh Chandra Dutta (portrayed by the great comic actor Tulsi Chakraborty), finds the eponymous parash pathar—the philosopher’s stone that can turn ordinary metal into gold—at the end of a desultory day. The discovery changes his fortunes, but not for the better. Chakraborty, whose comic timing was impeccable, was ably supported by Ranibala Devi, who played his wife Giribala, in providing the laughs. Slapstick humour is generously strewn across the screenplay—but it’s not without traces of pathos. What could have turned into a grim morality play is saved by Ray’s ability to infuse lightness even into dire tragedy.
Ray made another movie, Mahapurush, one of two shorts in Kapurush-Mahapurush, based on a short story by Basu. A direct indictment of a charlatan godman, it was a more conventional comedy, ending with a romantic union. In almost all his movies, as well as writing, Ray continued to provide glimpses of his subtle humour, not only for comic relief but also to lend depth to his characters.
Part of our Satyajit Ray centenary special.